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It's not a question of race, but abilities

The post-colonial slanging match between Indian and foreign-origin authors is overshadowing several other important questions, Pratik Kanjilal writes.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:26 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

This year's literary season opened with an entertaining spat between journalist and writer Hartosh Singh Bal and William Dalrymple, the public face of the Jaipur Literary Festival. It is closing with a row between the writers Pankaj Mishra and Patrick French over the latter's new book, India: A Portrait. Conducted in public, the discourse swiftly jettisoned the larger issues raised by Bal and Mishra and degenerated into a post-colonial slanging match. It's like watching a tournament in which sahibs in solar topees spar with querulous natives. And the excited spectators only want to know who's winning.

Rapid recap: Mishra trashed French's book as superficial and French hit back, accusing his critic of being a migratory champagne socialist, among other dreadful things. Earlier, Bal had accused Dalrymple of pretty much sneaking up on the Indian literary establishment and taking it hostage through a neocolonial plot known as the Jaipur Lit Fest. In response, Dalrymple screamed racism.

Shorn of the coruscating fireworks displays, the question these debates raise is: who can legitimately own Indian literature and steer the discourse on India? When perceptions of India's place in the world are changing rapidly, this is an important issue. Can Dalrymple - the Delhi farmhouse-dwelling, pyjama-clad sahib gone native - head up India's biggest literary festival? But, of course. Even if this Scotsman chooses to wear a kilt and sporran and plays the bagpipes, too.

It would be fine, if he was not projected as the heart and soul of the festival because at least a dozen other people, mostly Indians, have worked equally hard to build it. And if the festival was not projected internationally as the foremost forum of Indian literature, as it has been. Jaipur's uniqueness lies in its ability to attract talent from overseas. The festival accommodates indigenous literatures but they have been served better by other organisations, including dowdy State-funded agencies like the Sahitya Akademi.

As for French's new book, it was bound to face rough weather. It was sold as the definitive literary book on India, which it is not. Reviewers have generally found it inferior to French's excellent biography of VS Naipaul. And unluckily, it's come out when no one really needs another India book. Especially one which, though lovingly done, offers no new insights about either India shining, its main theme, or India unlit.

But the reviewers' strictures apply to just one book, and it is inexplicable why French chose to react so sharply, accusing Mishra of various crimes, including marrying into the British elite for unspecified but devilishly cunning purposes. Just as inexplicable as Dalrymple's pained cry of racism, which was plain weird and did nothing to address the specific charges levelled at him.

Ideas of race and colonialism have unfortunately come to dominate this discourse, in which the former colony is presumed to be stiffing it to the coloniser. But personally, I believe that such controversies would have arisen even if a Mandingo had attempted a portrait of India and an Ainu was the visible face of the Jaipur Literary Festival. The real issues relate to propriety and adequacy. The real questions, irrespective of ethnicity and modern history, are: who has earned the right to present India, and are they delivering the goods as advertised?

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal